Shakespeare In Love - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1998

Director: John Madden

Production: Bedford Falls Productions, Miramax Films, Universal Pictures; color, 35mm, Super 35; running time: 122 minutes. Filmed in London, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, England. Cost: $25 million.

Producer: Marc Norman, David Parfitt, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Donna Gigliotti, Bob Weinstein (executive), Julie Goldstein (executive), Linda Bruce (associate); screenplay: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard, with passages from the plays of William Shakespeare; cinematographer: Richard Greatrex; editor: David Gamble; music: Stephen Warbeck; casting: Michelle Guish; production design: Martin Childs; art direction: Steve Lawrence, Mark Raggett; set decoration: Jill Quertier; costume design: Humberto Cornejo, Sandy Powell; makeup: Veronica Brebner.

Cast: Joseph Fiennes ( William Shakespeare ); Gwyneth Paltrow ( Viola De Lesseps ); Geoffrey Rush ( Philip Henslowe ); Judi Dench ( Queen Elizabeth ); Simon Callow ( Tilney, Master of the Revels ); Colin Firth ( Lord Wessex ); Imelda Staunton ( Nurse ); Tom Wilkinson ( Hugh Fennyman ); Ben Affleck ( Ned Alleyn ); Martin Clunes ( Richard Burbage ); Jim Carter ( Ralph Bashford ); Rupert Everett ( Christopher Marlowe [uncredited] ); and others.

Awards: Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Writing, Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Art Direction/Set Direction (Martin Childs and Jill Quertier), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score (Stephen Warbeck); Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman), Best Single Achievement (Stoppard and Norman, for screenplay), and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy (Paltrow); British Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Editing; and others.



Norman, Marc, and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay , New York, 1999.


Brode, Douglas, Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love , New York, 2000.


Abramowitz, R., "Long Cool Woman," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 11, February 1998.

Dawtrey, A., and M. Roman, "'Love' Triangle Times 3," in Variety (New York), vol. 370, 23/29 March 1998.

Hirschberg, Lynn, "A Dresser for the Ages: In Just One Short Season, Sandy Powell Has Managed to Design Movie Costumes Four Centuries Apart, Each With a Sublime Ratio of Grandeur to Grit," in New York Times , 20 December 1998.

Gussow, Mel, "In Love, With Shakespeare," in New York Times , 12 January 1999.

Rothwell, Kenneth S., in Cineaste (New York), vol. 24, no. 2–3, 1999.

Elias, Justine, "Joseph Fiennes," in Interview , vol. 29, no. 2, February 1999.

Kemp, Philip, in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 9, no. 2, February 1999.

McMahon, Michael, "A Codpiece and LSD Experience: Influence of Films Such as Shakespeare in Love on the Young," in New Statesman , vol. 128, no. 4422, 5 February 1999.

"Firth and Foremost: Shakespeare In Love's Colin Firth Relishes a Good Role, His Son, and a Little Road Rage," in People Weekly , vol. 51, no. 5, 8 February 1999.

Goodale, Gloria, "How they Imagined Shakespeare in Love ," an interview with Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, in The Christian Science Monitor , vol. 91, no. 68, 5 March 1999.

Calhoun, John, "Tudor City: Production Design of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love ," in Interiors , vol. 158, no. 3, March 1999.

Sterritt, David, "A Director in Love with Shakespeare," an interview with John Madden, in The Christian Science Monitor , vol. 91, no. 73, 12 March 1999.

Harries, Martin, "Hollywood in Love: Explaining the Popularity of Shakespeare in Love ," in The Chronicle of Higher Education , vol. 45, no. 32, 16 April 1999.

Berthomieu, Pierre, " Shakespeare in Love : Et je t'appellerai Viola," in Positif (Paris), no. 548, April 1999.

Kroll, Jack, "Nothing Like the Dame," in Newsweek , vol. 133, no. 17, 26 April 1999.

Marks, Peter, "Great Literature. Period Costumes. That is So Cool: On the Slick Heels of Shakespeare in Love , Another Entry in a Growing Genre: The Hip Theatrical Period Film," in New York Times , 20 June 1999.

Bemrose, John, "In Love With Shakespeare: His Plays are More Popular Than Ever: To Be or Not to Be a Fan of the Bard is Not in Question," in Maclean's , 5 July 1999.

Caro, Jason, "1999: The Best and the Worst of a Great Year in Cinema," in Film Review Special (London), no. 30, 1999/2000.

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Around the mid-1990s that staple of British cinema, the period costume drama, began to mutate from its erstwhile Merchant-Ivoryesque good taste into something altogether fiercer, shaggier, and far less well-mannered. The change was signalled by Richard Loncraine's tour de force Richard III , set in an alternative-history 1930s fascist Britain, and further explored in two realpolitik takes on British monarchs, John Madden's subversive Mrs. Brown and Shekhar Kapur's dark, ruthless Elizabeth. At the same time the vogue for adapting and updating British literary classics, sparked by Amy Heckerling's Clueless (Jane Austen in Beverly Hills), gathered pace with such revisionist exercises as Great Expectations (Dickens in present-day New York), 10 Things I Hate About You (high school Taming of the Shrew ) and Baz Luhrmann's Latino-punk Romeo + Juliet. These two strands came together in Madden's next film after Mrs. Brown , Shakespeare in Love , in which the Bard himself gets

Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love
pushed off his exalted pedestal and thoroughly dusted down for present-day audiences. Taking advantage of the fact that almost nothing about Shakespeare's life is known for certain, Madden presents us not with the balding, pensive figure of the Droeshout portrait that adorns the flyleaf of most collected works, but with an ambitious, randy young hack writer struggling to make his way in the precarious world of Elizabethan London. Though the film is a comedy, the sense of a tough, dangerous era is never played down: the first image we're confronted with is of the hapless Henslowe, debt-ridden impresario, being tortured by his creditor's hired thugs.

But while it doesn't gloss over the crueller aspects of the period, the film makes no pretence at consistent historical authenticity—or consistent anything, come to that. Shakespeare in Love is frankly a hodgepodge—or as the Elizabethans might more pungently have put it, a gallimaufry and an ollapodrida, a dish into which any available ingredients might be tossed, the more the merrier. The main plot-line (well-born young woman named Viola dresses up as a boy, joins Shakespeare's troupe, and has an affair with the playwright) is pinched straight from Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon's classic 1941 comic novel No Bed for Bacon. The stagestruck heavy is a blatant lift from Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway , and the scene-setting pays homage to the Monty Python school of scatological reconstruction: Henslowe, striding through the London streets, treads in a heap of dung and is narrowly missed by the contents of a pisspot. We get romance, slapstick, bedroom farce, satire, star-crossed tragedy, a shipwreck, a full-on swashbuckling swordfight, and enough sly literary allusions to sink a concordance.

Which is fine since this heterogeneous mixture, a rich but satisfying plum-pudding, works perfectly well on its own terms, absorbing its borrowings and negotiating its switches of mood with little sense of strain. (There's only one serious lapse, a jarring descent into Carry-On inanity when Will puts on a squeaky voice, holds a veil over his beard and pretends to be Viola's female cousin.) Besides, style and subject are ideally matched, since we're dealing with the greatest magpie genius of all time. Shakespeare was notoriously disinclined to devise his own plots, preferring to snaffle them from Plutarch, Holinshed, or whatever dog-eared chapbook came to hand; he cared nothing for unity of mood, tossing dirty jokes into high tragedy in a way that gave the Augustans the vapours; and several of his plays ( Richard II , for one) contain whole scenes written by someone else, presumably borrowed when the harassed playwright ran out of time or inspiration. Shakespeare in Love , diverting though it is, hardly attains the Bard's own exalted standard, but it can be claimed as a film after his own heart.

Even the jocular anachronisms can quote good Shakespearean precedent; this was the dramatist, after all, who had his Cleopatra propose a game of billiards. The film is lavish with throwaway jokes: Will swigs ale from a mug inscribed "A Present from Stratford" and consults a "Priest of Psyche" over his writer's block. ("The proud tower of my genius is collapsed," he complains; the Priest, a Freudian avant la lettre, inquires after the state of Will's other proud tower.) Elsewhere a chatty ferryman boasts "I 'ad that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once," and the school of Bardic conspiracy-theorists who insist that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare is spoofed when the elder playwright casually tosses Will the plot for Romeo and Juliet. These and other more literary gags that may bypass the groundlings (a blood-thirsty small boy, given to tormenting mice, proves to be John Webster, future writer of gore-spattered Jacobean dramas) can no doubt be credited to co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead .

Shakespeare in Love delighted the public, the critics, and the voters of the Academy, who awarded it a string of Oscars. The secret of its appeal, perhaps—along with its gamy exuberance and a peerless display of acting ability from all concerned—is the way it succeeds in being at once frivolous and serious about its subject. The central plot-device—that Romeo and Juliet started out as an absurd piece of fustian entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter —is patently ludicrous, and the film abounds in backstage jokes about the vanities of writers, actors, producers, and so forth. Yet if the process of poetic creativity is sent up, the end result is wholeheartedly celebrated. The final triumphant staging of Shakespeare's first true masterpiece, while edging dangerously near luvvie-ish self-regard, conveys something of what Nabokov called shamanstvo —the "enchanter-quality" of great theatre. As Henslowe remarks, smiling beatifically as the whole shambles comes magically together, "It's a mystery."

—Philip Kemp

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